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Chinese artist's Duluth stay part of 20-year dream

A visiting artist stint at Lake Superior College is one small part of a decades-old dream come true for a Chinese painter, and part of a journey he says has been laid out by God.

A visiting artist stint at Lake Superior College is one small part of a decades-old dream come true for a Chinese painter, and part of a journey he says has been laid out by God.

Ji Ye's story starts with his life as a watercolor and oil painter and a professor of art at Guangzhou University in the Hunan Province of China near Hong Kong.

He was steeped in Chinese art traditions of ink drawing, often abstract and akin to Chinese calligraphy. But right around 1982, when he started his teaching career, Ji Ye saw an exhibit of 100 years of English watercolor paintings, which ended up impressing and ultimately influencing him greatly. His school library also contained books of painting in the European tradition, and he began to learn from the European style, developing a blend of East and West in his work.

Like many Chinese people, and spurred in part by the books, Ji Ye also worked to teach himself English -- three hours a day. "English is very important, is kind of an international language," Ji Ye said in an interview at North Shore Bank of Commerce last week, where he is one of five artists -- along with Lee Englund, Eva Johnson, Richard Gruchalla and Carrin Rosetti -- on display in the downtown lobby.

But actually traveling from China -- and realizing his dream of painting around the world -- was difficult for most of the past 20 years in communist China, and that only started to change recently.

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It changed for Ji Ye in 2001.

The painter also does "a little" ceramics work, and his ticket to America came when he was asked to be part of the Chinese delegation to an international ceramics conference to be held in Charlotte, N.C. That's when destiny started to play itself out.

At the conference, where he says he was possibly the only ceramic artist showing his paintings, Ji Ye started to make connections, two of which brought him to the Northland. He met Gary Nelson, who teaches at Lake Superior College, and also someone from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Ji Ye was invited to Eau Claire, and from there, he called Nelson, who invited him for what proved to be only his first trip to Duluth, last year.

Ji Ye stayed in several Duluth homes, including that of Larry Johnson, president and CEO of North Shore Bank, and those of several artists.

"I meet the right people," he said.

After a stay of more than a month, he traveled by bus to Nebraska to see a friend he had connected with while in the United States, and from there he traveled to see friends in California. In San Francisco, fate struck again, and he landed a position teaching at the Academy of Arts College there.

From there, the traveling continued. Ji Ye eventually went back to China and was soon invited by the Asia and Pacific Museum of Poland to exhibit his watercolor paintings at the Royal Palace in Warsaw and then returned to San Francisco to resume teaching full-time.

Ji Ye says that position was interrupted by the American economy following Sept. 11, and that's when, after a short return to China, Ji Ye was invited back up to Duluth by Nelson. Ji Ye is currently serving as a visiting artist and teaching some weekend classes at LSC.

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Ji Ye is showing both watercolor and oil paintings at the North Shore Bank exhibit, entitled "Four Views," and he says he has gained by knowing the Duluth artists in the show. Some of the paintings on display came from trips he and Englund took.

Each of the 20 paintings shown is a landscape. One shows a masted ship behind the DECC with the Aerial Lift Bridge in the background, while another shows a North Shore lighthouse. One, on display but not for sale, was painted from a window in the Johnson home along the western hillside in Duluth (which Ji Ye notes has good feng shui). Showing a sunrise streaking yellow over the gray harbor and Blatnik Bridge, it was a gift to Larry and Eva Johnson.

Others show nature scenes that feel right at home to Duluthians, each layered with textures and rich colors and striking lines that hint of hidden detail.

His philosophy is simple.

"I believe that nature is created by God, so no person can be better than God," he said. "So I learn things by nature."

Ji Ye plans to spend about half a year in Duluth and thinks New Zealand may be a next stop. He is hoping to get a green card in America.

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